Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Lock Stock and Two Smoking Victorians

Well, THAT was fun. And I say that as someone who always stops what he's doing when one of the Rathbone Holmes movies comes on, thinks James Mason was the best Watson ever, and is currently re-reading all the original novels and stories. (There's a story behind that. Hopefully three or four.) Ritchie's movie is fun; and yes, it does go all 'splodey one time too many, and like all movies over 2 hours these days it's 20 minutes too long, but because it's anchored by solid acting and an intricately-worked-out mystery, it works a lot more than it doesn't. So, some thoughts and impressions.

The plot. Plotwise, the movie is totally consistent with the Conan Doyle stories, which always set up a head-scratchingly-unexplainable mystery that Holmes can recognize and ultimately explain by revealing the significance of seemingly insignificant facts. This is done very well throughout the movie; when you see a crime scene through Downey’s eyes, you get (a) the oddity, (b) Downey’s mental impression of what caused the oddity, and (c) his investigation of the oddity, usually involving touching, tasting, or licking. There is also a marvelous little moment in a restaurant, where Downey is two things for the first and only time in the movie: alone, and in a public place. In those few moments, he’s aware of every conversation and every action around him to a terrifying degree, and you get a brief but real sense of what it must be like to be gifted (or cursed) with a vaccuum cleaner for a brain.

Holmes and Watson. The underlying tension between this movie’s detective and doctor goes back to Gunga Din, where Cary Grant and Victor McLaglen will do anything to derail Douglas Fairbanks Jr’s imminent marriage to Joan Fontaine. Downey tries to do the same thing to Law and Kelly Reilly, but I sensed a recognition on Reilly’s part that this adventuring is one of the things that attracts her to the man she’s marrying, making the potential conflict so negligible that it feels tacked on, like some producer somewhere said, “But wait! We can’t just have them be friends! We have to show the friendship being threatened! That's more dramatic!” Sorry, that’s not Holmes and Watson; and it’s not Watson and his wives, either, none of whom ever stood in his way when a case with Holmes beckoned.

So forget the tension part; what about the friendship? It’s not hero and bumbling comic foil, thank God, but it’s not Batman and Robin, either. It’s actually Batman and Alfred, because Law is more like Downey’s butler than his sidekick. The sitting room of 221B Baker Street looks like the inside of Holmes’ head after a bomb-blast, and you can easily picture Law’s Watson spending a lot of weary time picking up after Downey’s various experiments in chemistry or ballistics. (And of course the minute anybody who knows the Conan Doyle stories hears a series of gunshots coming from that room, the phrase “Holmes is spelling VR with bullet holes over the mantelpiece” springs immediately to mind.) It's like a criminological version of Jeeves and Wooster, and while there is (thankfully) a scarcity of hyper-clever banter between the two actors, there is a lightness of touch that indicates a marriage of equals, like a Victorian Nick and Nora. Or in this case, Nick and Norman.

The Great Detective. Downey’s Holmes is one hell of a damaged human being, which is only something you see in flashes from other actors (with the exception of Jeremy Brett, who has the unnerving ability to switch from friend and companion to The Brain From Another Planet every time someone within earshot makes a thoughtless remark). But Downey's Holmes is not totally useless from the neck down; he’s also very physical, a quality which is mentioned in the Conan Doyle stories but never shown as much as, say, Holmes’ ability to disguise himself so well that even Watson doesn’t recognize him. The brains-and-brawn duality is set up right from the start in (comic-book-geek alert) two Midnighter-like segments where Downey predicts the course of a fight in slow-motion and then executes the prediction in real time. Why? Because that’s what he does; because he can’t help himself. Ask him to be honest and your fiancée will end up throwing a glass of wine in his face. Give him nothing to mentally wrestle with and he’ll resort to cocaine just to stimulate his brain. (But not in this movie; although God knows it fits the way Downey plays the character.) This Holmes is four chess moves ahead of everybody, he’s playing 20 people at once, and he’s as a wacky as a room full of Bobby Fischers. And Downey makes him downright likable.

Irene Adler. If Downey is Batman then Irena Adler is Catwoman, somebody he’s attracted to because of her wits and daring, in spite of (or because of) the fact that she lives and operates on the other side of the law. Or at least she should be Catwoman; alas, in this movie, she comes across as a snippy little pussycat rather than a tigress with claws as sharp as her brain. Personally, I think Conan Doyle created Adler by mixing George Sand with Lola Montez, which automatically made her a chess piece that could hop around the board as brilliantly as Holmes does. But in this take, instead of presenting her as an opposite number to Downey’s oddly-moving knight, they’ve made Irene a pawn by putting her in the power of a nameless villain (guess who, Holmes fans), which means she’s not doing anything illegal because she wants to -- she’s doing it because she has to, because somebody has a hold over her. Once again, I deduce from this the dread hand of some nervous producer, and hear his voice saying, “But she can’t be bad! She has to have a reason for being bad! She has to be forced to be bad!” (This is why every single novel ever written by a movie producer has sucked. I'm telling you. All three of them are totally unreadable.)

The acting. I give it a 3 out of 4 for the over-the-title actors. Mark Strong gives his usual fierce and focused best. Jude Law humanizes both Watson and Downey’s Holmes. And Downey makes it all look far too easy. The only disappointment here is McAdams. Part of me wishes that Michelle Pfeiffer had been born in ’78 and not ’58; I would love to see her Adler matching wits with Downey’s Sherlock. Which is the problem: there’s very little wit-matching here, and I can’t tell if it’s because McAdams isn’t working or she wasn’t given anything to work with. (Or what she was given to work with kept changing so much that she didn’t know who the hell she was –- see below.) Notable under-the-title performances: Kelly Reilly made me wish she was playing Adler as well as Mary Morstan (as two different people, mind you, not Adler trying to vamp Watson; wouldn’t it be delicious to have both men in love with essentially the same actress?). And the actress playing Mrs. Hudson made more of an impression in 3 minutes than McAdams did in 2 hours (sorry, Rachel).

So what can we deduce from this highly enjoyable action-adventure steampunk-seasoned faithfully-revisionist regrettably-cocaine-free Sherlock Holmes?

This is not your father's Great Detective. Missing: one meerschaum, one magnifying glass, and one deerstalker cap.

None of that, now.

Somebody in Hollywood has actually read The Sign Of Four. Evidence: the presence of Mary Morstan, Watson’s soon-to-be first wife (or second, depending on who's counting). Odd corollary to evidence: since, in this movie, Holmes has never met Mary, then, in this particular continuity, the actual case behind The Sign Of Four never happened. Other evidence: (1) in The Sign Of Four, Holmes meets up with a prizefighter named McMurdo, with whom he went three rounds at a benefit once; odds are that this is the source of the bare-knuckle boxing scene in the film (I'll lay you a bet that Downey's opponent is named McMurdo in the final script); and (2) the bit about examining the pocket-watch is lifted from Holmes examining Watson’s pocket-watch in the same novel, said watch having been the property of Watson’s dissolute dead brother. Nice movie touch: Watson finishes Holmes’ sentences during the watch deduction scene. Even nicer touch: the way Jude Law finishes those sentences says, “I have taken this test so many times before that I know the answers by heart, you silly git.”

Somebody in Hollywood actually did some research on Watson’s life. Watson limps, which means the Jezail bullet he took in Afghanistan is lodged in his leg, not his shoulder; Watson has a bit of a gambling addiction, evidence of which is in some of the stories (Silver Blaze comes to mind); plus the bull pup which is mentioned once in A Study In Scarlet and then disappears forever now has a name (Gladstone) and is on screen about as much as Mrs. Hudson. This touch would score a lot higher if Ritchie didn’t then have a scene in which Gladstone farts to get a laugh. Because that’s, y’know, so totally Victorian.

Somebody is fond of the Basil Rathbone/Nigel Bruce films. There's a scene with Holmes, a violin and a jar full of flies that is a direct steal from The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes. Plus, if memory serves, the bit about Inspector Lestrade being unable to pronounce the word "catatonic" is a word-for-word echo from Sherlock Holmes and the Pearl of Death.

Parts of the modern world still look like Victorian England. Specifically alleys in Manchester, Chatham, Liverpool, and (of all places) Brooklyn. Whoever scouted location on this film deserves an Oscar for finding these places.

Somebody re-thought Irene Adler's character.

MOVIE-GOERS EVERYWHERE: Concerning this deduction, is there any point to which you would wish to draw my attention?
ME: To the curious incident of the sex scene in the hotel room.
MOVIE-GOERS EVERYWHERE: There was no sex scene in the hotel room.
ME: That was the curious incident.

Remember these scenes from the trailer?

They are nowhere to be found in the movie, but based on their presence in the early trailers, we can assume that there was a fully-filmed hotel scene between Holmes and Adler with Rachel McAdams wearing corset, garter and nylons. Since not a shred of this underwear exists in the movie as released, one can deduce that there was a change in Irene Adler’s character that all but eliminated the sexual element from her relationship with Holmes. At whose instigation, one wonders? McAdams herself, perhaps? She is, after all, the actress who refused to pose naked with Tom Ford on the cover of Vogue along with Scarlett Johansson and Kiera Knightly. Or it may have been part of a production rewrite. One cannot do more then speculate without actual data, but in either case, the change from half-naked vamp to fully-clothed sparring partner is a plus. Giving Downey's Holmes a knee in the groin wouldn't hurt him half as much as outwitting him. And if you want to see corsets and garters, there are more than enough to go around in Nine.

Lose the bustier and garter belt, gain a gun and slacks: I call that a fair trade.

One further deduction: the scene with Downey handcuffed and nekkid in the hotel bed would work better as the punch line to a sex scene between Holmes and Adler rather than what's in the released film. This would indicate that somewhere on the cutting room floor is a scene where Adler (decked out in all that lingerie) lures Holmes to bed, and, while he's naked, handcuffs him to the bedposts and then teasingly tests his escape-artist talents by placing a pillow over his privates, and a key under that pillow which will unlock his cuffs. And because we don't see the set-up, the moment when a chambermaid finds Downey in the altogether ends up getting a WTF laugh rather than a real laugh. (Downey mentions a key. What key? Who put it there? We can guess, but I'm betting at one point we actually saw it happen.) In any event, one blown joke aside, the lack of a sex scene between Holmes and Adler is (again) a plus. Nobody ever (ever) (EVER) needs to see Sherlock Holmes trying to deduce an erogenous zone.

Never mind trying to retrieve a key at his crotch by playing "Let's bob for apples."

And yet. And yet. I cannot help but infer from this that there was and is some unresolved confusion about Irene Adler's character and function in the film. Is she Holmes' sexual partner? The trailer says yes, the movie says no. Is she Holmes' equal? The premise says yes, the part as written says no. She is several things that we see -- damsel in distress, agent of an unseen villain, woman who is obviously in love with Holmes -- but more things that we are told about and do not see, or cannot credit. This is supposed to be a woman who has seduced a reigning monarch, been married at least once, and scandalized Europe; and as presented in the film she has not half the spark, mystery, or allure of a contemporary scandalous woman like Michelle Pfeiffer's Countess Olenska in Age Of Innocence (it's so hard not to keep coming back to Pfeiffer when thinking of this character). Bottom line: in this film, Adler's character is a total muddle. One can only hope that in the sequel, she will be a little more Marion Ravenwood and a little less Vicki Vale.

There will be a sequel. But of course, right? And while the identity of the villain is no mystery, the identity of the actor tapped to play him has been the subject of a great deal of online speculation. Search the net if you want the prevalent theories; the one with the biggest buzz says it's the actor who was originally slated to play Watson.

Someone in Sussex Downs is celebrating a birthday today. Yes, January 6th is the birthday of the man who was christened William Sherlock Scott Holmes over a century and a half ago. Which means a very old beekeeper in Sussex is injecting himself with a seven percent solution of cocaine, so he'll have enough energy to blow out the 156 candles on his cake.